We all have a lot to learn from each other, and these relationships inform and inspire us as authors, and by extension, as readers.
As a largely self-educated writer, I’ve relied primarily on personal experience as well as extensive reading in order to hone my craft. I was driven since youth by a passion for the form, since it was my most rewarding method of personal and creative expression.
The truly ambitious, restless and/or inquisitive writers among us eventually branch out beyond the borders of their tried and true talents in order to grow, personally and professionally, thereby realizing potential that might’ve otherwise gone undiscovered.
Professor Brian Stoddart is such a writer. His enthusiasm for disparate subjects ranging from world history to International cultures to journalism to sports prepared him for the creative leap into another personal subject of interest: crime fiction, not just as a consumer, but as a contributor to a lucrative but challenging field.
Recently, Brian was recently nominated for the Nagio Marsh Award (New Zealand), adding to his already formidable list of credentials. I’d call his achievements intimidating, except he’s way too humble and congenial, along with being exceedingly intelligent.
All of those qualities are on vivid display in this but brief but edifying exchange:
How do you adjust your style and voice when pivoting between journalism and creative writing?
Audience is everything, of course, so the starting point is actually being aware of the difference! Luckily, over an academic/media/sports/writer/broadcaster life I have picked up a lot of sensitivity to audience so now, in some ways, it is almost an automatic adjustment. The keys, though, are, vocabulary, simplicity, directness, conciseness and the related conditions. When I think about it, however, being direct, concise, clear, sharp are pretty much the qualities of any good writing. I also learn a lot by watching how others do (or do not, in some cases) do it. David Finkel at the WashPo is a fabulous model both in the newspaper and non-fiction realms. And all of that is without going into how journalism, like all forms of communication has changed in approach and style – the worst journalism now is “personal opinion” wrapped up as important posting, and all writers need to avoid that
Why did you decide to write crime fiction?
It was a real process of arrival. I started writing as an academic who then moved into newspaper writing as well as TV and radio work on the basis of my sports interests. That led into a lot of international work and exposure, especially in Asia, and I began to write about a lot of different things. I later wrote a biography of an Anglo-Italian in the Indian Civil Service and that gave me a new impetus because I never thought I would or even could do that. Similarly, I later wrote a memoir about living in the Old City in Damascus. Then I was on consultancy assignment long term in Cambodia, and thought that since I had always read crime fiction perhaps I should now have a crack at writing some. That led to Le Fanu, going back to my India research but using all that to tell some very different stories that have some universal bases. It was, too, a progression in audience as above – I think I was ready to do the crime, as it were, because by then I had learned a lot of the necessary writing skills.
As someone with an extensive academic background, do you recommend a formal education for fiction writers?
I don’t know about recommend it! It worked for me in that it gave me a clear field in which to place the crime fiction and the background to deliver on the possibilities. Then, the academic career took me to a lot of places and activities that in some way all feed into the training to become a crime fiction writer. In general, though, perhaps the best training is in developing curiosity about people and places. Had I lacked that then I doubt the formal education would have directly helped me become a fiction writer. Obviously the university work gave me the chance to read and think about a lot of things, and that led to work in places all over the world that again helped feed the experiences and insights that are so useful for writers. But others do it differently – Rankin’s curiosity for Edinburgh shines through, remembering though he was also a PhD student when he did that. Fred Vargas and Doug Johnston and a heap of others are also seriously well educated in the formal sense, but they also have the sense of place and people that marks the great writer in any genre. Writers who know place and people may or may not have a deep formal education but they all have a relentless taste for knowledge.
What are some of your influences, literary and otherwise?
Really varied! There is all the crime fiction to start with and that is, of course, extensive but for me focuses on “crime and place” hence Rankin, Connolly, Parker Bilal, Barbara Nadel, Phillip Kerr, Paul Thomas (NZ), Jane Harper, Valentina Giambanco, Colin Cotterill, Andrea Camilleri etc etc etc. All that builds on an academic literature and some of the keys there are people like C.L.R. James, whose book on cricket was really about Caribbean cultural evolution post-slavery, and, say, Robert Darnton’s wonderful insights into France during the French Revolution. There is the more specific and detailed work on India and China etc that has fed into my knowledge base, and some of that comes from the fiction of people like R.K. Narayan. I love the great writers like Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh along with all the others like Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott but also, say, Jack London, Charmian Kittredge and writers who “see” so well into other places and people. Reading a lot of anthropology helped! These days I read a lot of global affairs non-fiction and again really appreciate the skill and the views in works like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
What’s next for you?
I am currently finishing a non-fiction true crime biography of a Frenchman who was hanged for a double murder in NZ in the late nineteenth century and whose life was extraordinary. There is another Le Fanu being developed and I am looking at some TV and film ideas as well, and looking out for other new possibilities. It is never dull!
Thanks, Brian! That was intellectually stimulating to say the least, cheers.
After a long career around the globe as a university teacher, researcher and administrator, Brian Stoddart is now a consultant and writer. He has published fifteen books of non-fiction covering mainly sport, Asian affairs and, more recently, global events.
He writes regularly for the press and several websites, appears on radio and television, is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and seminars around the world, and also works as a speaker-lecturer on cruise ships. Brian Stoddart also maintains his own blog.
Bibliography: A Madras Miasma, The Pallampur Predicament, A Straits Settlement
PHOTO: BRIAN STODDART